Greetings fellow travelers.
I hope it's interesting for you to hear what stood out to us these last two months while looking through newcomers' eyes. I'll revisit some of these themes in future posts. For now, here's a quick overview of the landscape in the American South, with four positive impressions and four less positive ones. I think of this as a "list of Cs," and I'll tell you what they add up to at the end.
A few caveats are in order before we begin. Our time thus far was not representative of what our lives will be like going forward, in part because we were in a succession of Airbnb rentals for most of it. Anyway these impressions could never be representative of more than a tiny cross-section of American life. We were in one particular city in one particular state, following our own particular pursuits. That said, I expect you'll find commonalities here that apply to more than just our experience.
Truly, America is the land of convenience. Anything you want, there is a way to get it, and now in more ways than ever. You just have to ask. An app is almost certainly available on your phone to make whatever you're trying to do easier and quicker. You will find a website not far behind in case you want more details than are on your phone. And if you're still in need of help, customer service is never farther than a phone call away.
People are friendly. They ask what you're up to and they wish you well. To all my European friends who are now saying "It's all superficial! They only just met you, they don't know you, they can't possibly care about you," I have two responses. I think some people really are genuinely friendly. The fact that we have such a hard time accepting it says more about us than them. Moreover, even if some exchanges are superficial, guess what? It still feels great to be around nice, pleasant people, who are polite and smile at you and make small talk.
It's definitely warmer down South, but I'm still surprised to see so many people in shorts and t-shirts in the middle of winter. I thought we were cold-tolerant coming from Switzerland, but this is something else. Plus, can I just say baseball caps? Totally OK for men to wear caps, and many do, in all settings. Then there's dining. Do you want the breakfast items on the menu at 2:00 p.m.? No problem. Do you want to have dinner at 5:00 p.m.? But of course. Wear what you want, go where you want when you want, eat what you want when you want – it's all so casual and unremarked. No one gives it a second thought, because they're all going about their business in the same way.
I'm sure not every city is this way, but we were surrounded by a profusion of color: Caucasian, Indian, Black, Hispanic, Asian and every flavor you can think of. You don't necessarily notice if the place you live is plain vanilla until you go somewhere that is different. So we noticed that there were lots of different faces, and mostly no one else seemed to notice it at all. How nice.
By this I mean not just cars but also outsized SUVs, pick-up trucks, and delivery trucks. They're everywhere all the time, and great swaths of real estate are devoted to making it possible to drive around. So much so, that in many places, a pedestrian is a both a rarity and a danger to themselves. People drive everywhere, which mean their vehicles are everywhere. And you notice them, also because many are ridiculously loud. In more than 120 years of talented engineering, we've advanced internal combustion technology to remarkable levels. But deliberately obnoxious mufflers on Ford F250s drone day and night, and there is no escape from them. (Lots of other loud trucks, too, not to pick on Ford.) Ironically, a key reason our city became so successful was the decision 20 years ago to remove a downtown highway bridge and convert the banks of the river that flowed beneath it into a lovely, pedestrian-only park. America, we have to talk about what cars are doing to your quality of life.
Perhaps related to the prior point, it's not just cars that have gotten bigger. Americans themselves seem to have grown alongside their country's success. The leading cause of death when we left in 1996 was heart disease. It is still heart disease, although there have been some interesting developments a bit further down the list of causes of death. For all that America spends more on healthcare than any other country, edging out even the Swiss on a per capita basis, why aren't Americans healthier? I want to come back to this topic, because it's an important one, and I think multiple factors are at play in explaining Americans' health.
A key driver of the convenience I started with is the simple fact that people are trying to sell you something. Pretty much all the time and everywhere. Those apps and websites and customer service lines? All designed to collect your data so they can sell you something (and sell your data to boot). Everything you buy begets offers to buy more. "Discounts, deals, limited-time offers, buy two get one free!" Love it or hate it, you cannot escape it. I find myself returning more calls than ever, because I've learned I cannot ever answer my phone if I don't know the caller. I'm keeping an open mind, because I like the convenience. But the engine that drives America is commerce, and we are breathing in its exhaust every day.
Last but not least, there is a busyness – an almost franticness – that characterizes what we've seen of the United States so far. I don't mean that people themselves rush around, or don't enjoy a leisurely meal, although there is certainly some of that. What I mean is that people have become one with their cell phones, and they are always on. You see these cyborgs while driving, in stores shopping, inside or outside eating, even walking, biking, or running. I haven't seen anywhere people are separated from their phones, for even a moment. By the way, when driving, really?! This is so dangerous, but we see people on their phones while driving all the time.
The Big C
All of these little Cs add up to rampant, unchecked growth, or what I'm going to call "the Big C." When it comes to our health, many of you know that growth without regard to consequences is another way we refer to cancer. Uncontrolled growth seems good at first, but it can kill the host. It's too soon for us to say which way it feels the United States is heading, but we see suspicious growths all over this patient. We need to take a closer look at them.
That is what we will do each week now in the further Paradise Found series. I hope you enjoy the journey and our diagnosis.